The end of the era of low interest rates?

On Thursday 2nd November, the Bank of England increased interest rates. Although the increase was not large (from 0.25% to 0.5%), possibly it marks the end of an era. It was the first increase since 2007 and follows the cut in rates in 2009 from 4.5% to 0.5% after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The rate was further cut in 2016 to 0.5% following the Brexit vote.

Traditionally the rate rise should benefit savers and make it more expensive for borrowers, particularly those with mortgages. However the UK economy has changed in the ten years since rates were last increased. Banks have been far slower to reward savers  than to punish borrowers when rates rise so savers should not get too excited by the rise in interest rates. More importantly, the number of homeowners with variable rate mortgages has fallen significantly, with The Times estimating that only 10% of households will be affected by the rate rise. This is partly because of the shift to fixed rate mortgages, which now account for 60% of mortgages, the increase in renting and the repayment of mortgages among older households.

Secondly, although in percentage terms the rise is large, in absolute terms it is relatively small and, for a family with a £250,000 variable rate mortgage, they will currently be paying approximately £1,125 per month and their payments will rise about 2.25% or £25 per month. This will reduce discretionary income and consequently consumption is likely to be slightly reduced. There are however two more significant effects. Those borrowing via  credit cards or taking out loans for large purchases such as cars or furniture, will see borrowing costs rise and this could deter future consumption. Another issue is that people currently with very high borrowing, particularly those on low incomes, might find it increasingly difficult to repay the interest on their existing borrowing, with an impact on bankruptcies. Most important is likely to be the psychological impact of the rate increase since a signal has been sent out that the era of ultra-low interest rates is coming to an end.

The rate increase is not unexpected, having been forecast in the press for some time. The recent rise in inflation to 3% made it more likely. However it is worth assessing the decision  in more detail. Normally interest rates increase as inflation rises in order to reduce inflationary pressures in the economy and keep inflation within the 1% – 3% band set for the Bank of England by the Government. According to the traditional Phillips Curve idea, rises in inflation are likely to occur simultaneously with falls in unemployment as increases in aggregate demand in an economy work simultaneously to increase prices and reduce unemployment as firms attempt to hire more workers to increase output, thereby putting an upward pressure on wages which then feeds into higher inflation. One could therefore easily argue that, at many times, an increase in interest rates is a sign of a strong economy experiencing rapid growth.

The current situation is slightly different. The increase in UK inflation can be partly explained by the fall in the value of sterling following the Brexit vote and this will drop out of the CPI index over the next few months. Secondly, although unemployment is at a record low at 4.3%, there has not been the rise in earnings which, in the past, we would have expected to accompany the strength of the labour market, thirdly there has been a slow-down in the UK’s rate of growth and finally there is still considerable uncertainty in the economy about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations which is affecting confidence among businesses. So why the rise in rates?

One explanation for the rise in interest rates comes from Ed Conway, the Economics Editor of Sky News who suggests that the UK’s ability to grow without inflation has fallen in recent years because of our poor productivity growth. Whereas in the past we might have been able to sustain growth of 2 – 2.5% without inflation, he thinks the maximum figure for non-inflationary growth might now be 1.5%. Therefore, without compensating action, inflation is likely to increase.

 

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What’s going on in the UK economy?

Trying to understand what is going on in an economy can be difficult. Running the economy has been described as similar to trying to drive a car while only being able to look in the rear-view mirror. You know where you have been but cannot see what is ahead. Economic forecasters today probably look back to the period before the financial crash when the UK was in the NICE decade (non-inflationary, continuous expansion) as a golden period. Today life is more complex and one cannot help but feel sorry for the Chancellor busy preparing his November budget and the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England when they meet in November and have to decide whether to increase interest rates.

On the one hand, implying  a rate rise is not yet needed, the Office for National Statistics has just announced that GDP growth has fallen from 1.8% for the first quarter of 2017 to 1.5% for the period April to June which is below expectations and the weakest figure for four years. This is partly down to a fall in services of 0.2% which comprise 80% of GDP inflation. Furthermore discretionary income (what you have left to spend after tax and spending on essential items such as food, energy and transport, has fallen and 60% of households are worse off than they were a year ago as a result of wages rising at 2.1% while inflation is currently 2.9%. Another piece of evidence is that a survey published over the weekend by the Nationwide  reported that house prices dropped in London by 0.6% between July and September compared with the same period last year. This is the first such fall for eight years. 

However the high rate of inflation combined with the fall in unemployment  to 4.3% would suggest it is now time  to reduce the level of aggregate demand by raising interest rates.

Just to make the whole picture more confusing , there is the danger of depressing demand at a time when the economy is fragile because of uncertainty regarding Brexit and one does not want to do anything to discourage business investment which is supposed to be weak because of low confidence. Yet business investment actually rose by 0.5% in the second quarter of 2017! Furthermore, although the current account deficit rose to £23.2bn in the second quarter from £22.3bn in the first quarter, exports of goods and services actually rose by 1.7% while imports increased by 0.4%. Finally, just when you might think you have taken account of all the main variables – what about oil prices which have a significant impact on inflation and discretionary income. OPEC’s decision to curb production is intended to keep prices high and, although this looked to be failing earlier in the year, the combination of hurricanes damaging US oil refineries and the OPEC production curbs have started to have an effect on fuel prices.

 

Good news for the Chancellor?

Friday’s papers contained news which might make life easier for the Chancellor when he prepares for his budget on 22nd November. Government borrowing in August fell faster than expected, meaning that the Chancellor will have approximately £10bn more to spend on helping reduce student debt, boosting public sector salaries, spending on the NHS, improving our infrastructure, etc. At £5.7bn, the Government’s August deficit has fallen to its lowest level for a decade. The reason for the fall is twofold. VAT receipts have soared because of  high consumer spending while current government spending, particularly local authority spending, has fallen.

However all is not rosy. Firstly, when interest rates rise, which is likely to happen sooner rather than later, government debt interest payments will increase, as will interest paid on index-linked borrowing because of higher inflation rates (borrowing where the rate of interest is linked to the rate of inflation). Furthermore, there are certain commitments which have already been made, particularly with regard to public sector pay, which will necessitate higher government spending. If these factors are not to increase government borrowing then either taxes will  increase, other areas of government spending fall or the UK economy must grow sufficiently strongly to generate enough extra tax revenue.

Secondly Moody’s, one of the major ratings agencies, last week downgraded the UK’s credit rating from Aa1 (the top rating, sometimes referred to as triple A) to Aa2 on the grounds that leaving the European Union was creating economic uncertainty at a time when the UK’s debt reduction plans were in danger because of the decision to raise spending in certain areas. This follows a downgrading in 2016 by the other major agencies, Fitch and S&P. The downgrade might affect how much it will cost the government to borrow money, particularly on foreign financial markets. The Labour Party has called the downgrade a “hammer blow” to the economic credibility of the Conservatives.

Thirdly the stronger than expected level of consumer spending which boosted VAT receipts is unlikely to be sustainable as real incomes fall because of the low levels of wage increases combined with the higher levels of inflation. The forecast for the growth in retail sales compared to a year ago was 1.1% whereas the actual number was 2.4%, with last month showing particularly strong growth. There are many possible reasons for this. Possibly the weak pound caused more people stayed at home instead of going overseas for a holiday, possibly the falling unemployment had an effect and possibly the figures will reverse next month since they are extremely volatile.

Finally it is worth noting that the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organisation comprising the world’s major economies) forecasts that we will fall from being the second fastest growing  G7 economy to the second slowest as the other main economies improve and we do not.

If the UK economy is to flourish, an increase in the rate of growth, an improvement in productivity and a satisfactory agreement with the EU are all crucial.